Tagline: Ghost Dancers details the Indian societies and tribal beliefs of the Weird West. An above-average supplement, it is highly recommended for any GM running a Deadlands game and will prove useful to anyone playing an Indian character.
If I recall correctly, Ghost Dancers was the first time I received a review copy of a book. (At the time, RPGNet maintained a Wish List function for people who had posted reviews on the site. They probably still do. Here’s a document somewhat contemporary to this review describing their review policy.) Getting that review copy was terribly exciting for me at the time. I kept meaning to go back and write a review of the core Deadlands game, but for one reason and another it never happened. The half-finished file still lurks on my hard drive as a poor derelict.
Ghost Dancers is the sourcebook for the Indians of the Weird West. It does it’s job well – giving a highly effective overview of Indian political, cultural, and religious life. Those of you familiar with the Deadlands game will know that many of the crucial events which lead to the development of the Weird West (instead of our historical Wild West) are the result of various Indian factions – as a result this book is a crucial key to understanding some of the background to the world itself. Since it also details the Hunting Grounds in great detail, this book is a must for any Deadlands GM.
I also suggest, but not quite so highly, this book for any player with an Indian character who feels that the main rulebook isn’t giving him enough flavor or options for his character. If you are generally unfamiliar with Indian belief and culture, this book will also give you a good one-point stopping place for learning more. (Of course you should beware of taking things in this book as absolute historical fact – the designer himself is careful to point out that not only is the book simplifying many things about Indian culture, the Weird West is not an historical place by any stretch of the imagination.)
The book follows the traditional (and extremely advantageous) breakdown of all Deadlands material: a section for the players (Posse Territory), material that the GM should know and reveal only to select players (No Man’s Land), and material for the GM’s eyes only (Marshal’s Handbook). In Ghost Dancers, however, this has been changed to The War Party, Sacred Grounds, and The Chief’s Words – because “those white guys at Pinnacle Entertainment mistitled the sections in the previous books.” (Any product with the ability to look at itself humorously earns high points with me.) This lay-out is very nice – too often source material is only useful for the GM or reveals world secrets to the players because it lumps all the information about organizations and locations together. Nor have I seen this lay-out lead to useless regurgitation of the same information in each section. Pinnacle always seems to be careful in giving the GM just the extra information, without restating what has been said 50 pages earlier.
STYLE AND LAYOUT
My one persistent problem with Deadlands products is that the graphical presentation of the books fails to do anything for me. It is clearly meant to be evocative, but it just sits like a lump of clay for me. The cover art of Ghost Dancers, like all Deadlands products I’ve seen is a high-quality, excellent piece of work. The interior art, on the other hand, varies wildly from just slightly above average to pathetically horrid. The special font they use for headings is supposed to be mood-setting I suppose, but I’m pretty much indifferent. They have, however, solved one of my big problems with the main Deadlands rulebook – the type font is a nicely readable size, as opposed to the unnecessarily huge size used earlier.
One last minor complaint. Deadlands products use a nice referencing system to take you from one section of the book to another (for example, if you’re reading a section on the Sioux Nations in the War Party section you might get a page reference indicating that more material on this subject can be found in the Chief’s Words section). For this referencing system they use three miniature pictures – a gun and hatchet for the War Party, a holy symbol for the Sacred Ground, and a chief’s head and headdress for the Chief’s Words. These three pictures are then repeated on the title pages of each of the three sections. The problem comes because they apparently created these images at the thumbnail size for the referencing system and then just blew them up for a full-page presentation on the title pages. Anyone who has done this will know that you end up with a fuzzy image at the larger scale – and that’s precisely what you get in Deadlands products. Suggestion: Compose the pictures at the larger scale and then shrink them down to the smaller scale.
None of these are serious problems in my opinion, they just don’t click with me properly. A quick flip-through of the book should be enough for you to judge whether or not you agree with me.
Indeed, these problems are inconsequential. The lay-out of the product is excellent. Material is laid out in an intuitive and consistent fashion and a detailed table of contents will make it easy to find what you’re looking for. You won’t find any weird placement of information – such as sticking a section on weapon damage in the equipment section rather than the combat section with the rest of the weapon damage information – that seems to be trendy with certain companies.
So, to sum up: Externally this product is visually fantastic. Internally, it is visually boring. The lay-out is useful, productive, and easy-to-use however – and that’s the most important thing. It is only my aesthetic sense which is offended.
THE WAR PARTY
The first section of the book serves both as a reference for players and as a general introduction to the book. The first chapter (“Welcome to the Lodge”), serves as that general introduction.
Chapter Two (“Indian Country”) gives a broad overview of Indian history, as well as comprehensive look at the major tribes and organization of Indian society. Chapter Three (“Making an Indian”) provides details on modifying the basic character creation rules found in the main rulebook for Indian characters – including your role in Indian society, the selection of your Guardian Spirit, and new aptitudes, edges, hindrances, knacks, and gear. The section of the book also contains new archetypes for use by the GM and players both.
Chapter Four (“Guardian Spirits”) details the workings of Guardian Spirits, while Chapter Five (“Strange Medicine”) expands and improves upon the medicine rules found in the main rulebook, providing more options and details.
Chapter Six (“Objects Sacred and Profane”) detail the rules for creating and using ‘medicine objects’ (magical items). This is an exceptionally useful resource for the GM, as is the next chapter (Chapter Seven – “The Hunting Grounds”) which details the extradimensional realm of the Hunting Grounds.
If there is one reason above all others to buy this book it is the material found in Chapter Seven. With amazing grace the designers allow the Hunting Grounds to be not only something of significance and importance to Indians, but to all religious groups. In the Weird West the magical forces which have been interpreted through the faith and religion of humanity are all too real – and it was the release of those forces from what the Indians call the Hunting Grounds (and Christians would call Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell) during the Reckoning that created the alternate history which Deadlands details.
In my mind, therefore, understanding and being able to use the Hunting Grounds in a Deadlands campaign is extremely important – and this book is the key to allowing that. As a result, every Marshal/Chief/GM should own a copy of Ghost Dancers.
THE CHIEF’S WORDS
Chapter Eight (“The Chief’s Guide”) provides everything about the Indians of the Weird West that the players just aren’t supposed to know. I won’t go into details here, because there are probably several players reading this review, but some of the stuff you uncover here is truly exciting and made me want to go out and start writing adventures.
Chapter Nine (“Secret Societies”) details the Ghost Dance (from which the book gets its name) and the Raven Cult. The Ghost Dance is a ritual revealed to the Paiute tribe – it preaches of peace and tolerance, and foretells of a time when the white man will be driven from his lands and the red man shall return to power. A time which shall be prophesied in the birth of a pure white buffalo calf.
The Raven Cult — as anyone whose familiar with the Deadlands game knows – is responsible for the Reckoning. They, too, foretell a future where the white man has been driven from the lands of the Indians – but they see the way to this future as one paved in blood and violence.
The GM will learn everything he needs to know about these two secret societies. Once again this is important information and mandates buying this sourcebook. The information on the Raven Cult is important because of the role in the origins of the Weird West setting. The Ghost Dance is important because they are clearly going to become important in the future of the Weird West.
This book is an excellent and required resource for the GM of a Deadlands game, but only of mild interest to a player (even if the player happens to have an Indian character). I suggest that only one copy is really necessary for any gaming group, but that one copy is necessary for any long-term campaigns set in the Weird West.
Author: Paul Beakley
Company/Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Page count: 128
Originally Posted: 1998/06/19